'The Last Dance': Dennis Rodman embodied the pop culture phenomenon of the '90s Bulls

First Look: 'The Last Dance' Episode 3 (1:21)

Scott Van Pelt gives a sneak peek into the next episode of "The Last Dance," which explores Dennis Rodman's importance to the Bulls during Scottie Pippen's absence. Episodes 3 and 4 debut Sunday, April 26, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. (1:21)

MY OLDEST SON was 5, in his second month of kindergarten, when his teacher asked why his dad hadn't been seen in the pickup line for a couple of weeks. "He's living with Dennis Rodman," my son answered, dripping nonchalance, as if this were a task every Catholic-school dad would eventually get around to completing.

The living arrangement was brief, roughly two weeks in the fall of 1995, and more of a necessity than a choice. I was working under an extreme deadline to write Rodman's autobiography, "Bad As I Wanna Be," and having prescribed interview times -- "From 9 to noon, we'll cover the prairie years" -- was not something that meshed with the Rodman lifestyle. So I headed to Southern California to camp out with him and his then-agent, Dwight Manley, a world-renowned coin expert who represented exactly zero other athletes at the time. Two weeks with Dennis Rodman in the mid-'90s might sound like a thrilling setup, but in reality, most of my time was spent in a panicked attempt to get Rodman to focus on telling the stories that needed to become a book in less than three months. The enduring image of that time in my life is Dennis, wearing Zubaz, lounging on a couch with a remote in his hand while I sit in a pool of my own sweat, trying to hear whatever he's mumbling over the roar of the television.

There were also moments that nestled perfectly into the mid-'90s zeitgeist: a Saturday morning at a nail salon in Beverly Hills, a block off Rodeo Drive, me sitting at the juice bar wearing scraggly basketball shorts -- I was told it was a casual outing -- while I waited for Dennis to get his nails painted a nice rosy pink. He didn't have an appointment -- fame doesn't call ahead -- but he was allowed in anyway. Afterward, he tossed me the keys to his Ferrari convertible and said he'd resume his spot behind the wheel when his nails were sufficiently dry. My car at the time, a '78 Honda Civic, was not adequate preparation for the power of the Ferrari, and my failure to master the clutch caused us to bounce our way down Rodeo Drive, top down, Dennis obscenely obvious with his fuchsia hair easy for all to see. As I remember it, the nails dried quickly.

For a brief time, I found myself uniquely positioned (in the passenger seat, mostly) to witness the basketball/pop culture spectacle of Rodman and the Chicago Bulls. Surreal is a word that has been ground into a fine mist, but trust me -- it fits here. And my experience illustrates the very real challenge that comes with "The Last Dance." Even in our saturated mediascape, it's difficult to describe the mania surrounding those Bulls teams to someone who didn't experience it at the time.

Michael Jordan was perhaps the biggest celebrity in the world, responsible for spreading the gospel of basketball across the globe. He was the brand ambassador, the headliner, the frontman, and every Bulls season of their second three-year run of championships was like an 82-stop tour of everyone's favorite band. Rodman, with his earrings and nose rings and tattoos and ever-changing hair color, was the group's pop culture phenomenon, the first sports hero of the disaffected and marginalized. His embrace of gay culture, symbolized by his highly controversial decision to dye the AIDS ribbon in his hair, was radical for the time. His open discussions about vulnerability, about how it was OK for young people to not know precisely who or what they were, struck chords never heard from a famous athlete. People who never cared about basketball cared about Dennis Rodman.

"Bad As I Wanna Be" was published before the NBA playoffs in the spring of '96, as the Bulls were finishing their 72-win season. And if there's one tidbit that might begin to touch on what swirled around that team at the time, maybe it's this: Prior to the book's release, in a move that was equal parts marketing magic and legitimate precaution, copies were locked in warehouses in the Chicago area -- and protected by armed guards.

THE FIRST TIME Rodman suited up for the Bulls, an exhibition game in late October of 1995 in Peoria, Illinois, he went on a tirade against a replacement referee that ended when he threw the ball against the shot clock and was assessed a technical. Based on years of experience playing for various martinets who failed to appreciate the innate beauty of the well-timed tantrum, Rodman's first inclination after such a transgression was to look at the bench to see how his coach reacted to what he'd just seen. Was he defending him? Was he frantically pulling off a reserve's warm-up top and flinging him toward the scorer's table? Was he covering his mouth with his hand and talking to the nearest assistant about what fresh hell this is?

The second Rodman joined the Bulls, Phil Jackson understood his fate. And even though he was probably shocked to confront it so soon, he reacted to this outburst in the best possible way: He leaned back in his chair and laughed. You remember the look: fingers steepled across his right knee, head tilted back, foot raised slightly off the floor. It was the Jackson Special: laid-back, trusting, his benevolent aura beaming its way into Rodman's fragile psyche.

"I found out from the start, he's going to let me go," Rodman told me for the book. "He's not as worried about distractions, because look who he's been coaching all these years. The Bulls know about distractions, and they know how to play through them."

Rodman played every possession like it was a referendum on his worth as a human. He went to outrageous lengths to convince the world that basketball was not his identity, and then he played like nothing else mattered. He reveled in the dirty work, the game's menial and unquantifiable tasks, and then demanded adulation for it. There was, of course, something manic about the way he played, like it was something embedded deep in his core, something unrelated to the game. Insecurities, questions of self-worth, fear of losing everything -- it was all swirling inside him. I'm sure it signifies something important that our most indelible images of Jordan are of him launching his body vertically, and our most indelible images of Rodman are of him launching his body horizontally. John Edgar Wideman, writing in The New Yorker in 1996, described Rodman's on-court style as "compelling, outrageous, amoral," and his persistence as "percussive behavior so edgy it threatens to wreck the game that's supposed to contain it."

Anyone who spent any time around Rodman during his career would come away with a profound appreciation of the resilience of the human body -- or at least his. Even in his mid-30s, Rodman could stay out all night and still play 40 minutes and grab 15 rebounds the next night. During the season chronicled in "The Last Dance," he led the league in rebounding for the seventh straight season, played 80 games and averaged almost 36 minutes a game -- nearly all of them at a pace only he could keep. He was 36 years old. For comparison, the last time Steph Curry averaged 36 minutes a game he was 25. The last time he played 80 games he was 26.

Any consideration of Rodman the basketball player -- not the actor or reality-show celebrity or amateur diplomat -- has to start by separating his self-destructive tendencies from his work ethic. He might have wanted people to believe that he didn't work hard, that his body was somehow genetically inclined to withstand whatever punishment he chose to inflict upon it, but that isn't entirely true. One of his more endearing quirks was a compulsion to randomly stop at health clubs for an impromptu workout. These stops were never prefaced by an announcement or a conversation. He never expressed a need or a desire for a workout; he just pulled into a parking lot and walked through the door. (Wearing Zubaz every time, sometimes right side out, other times inside out. I never discerned a logic to the pattern.) The first time, I injected my own limited (rule-bound) worldview into the mix by asking (stupidly) whether he was a member of whatever gym he'd just discovered. He gave me a look that made it clear he hadn't ever considered that health clubs existed for any purpose other than his convenience. Every stop played out the same way: He walked in, told the gobsmacked kid behind the counter he was going to be working out, grabbed a towel and headed to the nearest unoccupied StairMaster. Nobody had the time or the inclination for paperwork.

RODMAN AND JORDAN weren't friends, as I'm sure "The Last Dance" will make clear. Their lives converged only on the court. But Rodman didn't have unqualified respect for many players -- his favorite epithet was "phony," a weapon he wielded, at times recklessly, as a means of protecting his self-proclaimed authenticity -- but he had unqualified respect for Jordan. And for good reason: Rodman would undoubtedly dispute this, but his alliance with Jordan might have saved his career.

In October 1995, I happened to be with Rodman when he received a call announcing the finalization of the trade that sent him from the Spurs to the Bulls. It's easy to forget, amid the glare of those three straight NBA titles, how risky this move was at the time. Rodman was borderline radioactive in San Antonio, a combustible brew of grievance and insolence. His talent was undeniable, and the fit in Chicago held tantalizing potential, but why would the Bulls take this chance? At a news conference, Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich said, "Big surprise, huh?" and made a point to tell everyone how difficult it was to find a team willing to take Rodman, who had played just 49 games the season before because of suspensions and injuries. Asked if he considered it a big relief to be rid of Rodman, Popovich said, "A big relief? We were without him for quite a bit last season, so it's not any different in many respects."

The 1995-96 Bulls entered the season a mysterious bunch. The roster was strong, but roles would have to be altered. Jordan was coming off a 17-game season after ending his fling with baseball. Power forward was manned by a collective shrug. Rodman the basketball player was uniquely engineered for the job -- how many Hall of Famers get there through an outright refusal to shoot? -- but his potential to blow the whole thing up was no small consideration. Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, loved for assembling the NBA's greatest team and loathed for dismantling it, harbored just enough non-mainstream views to make him the ideal candidate to welcome Rodman. (For instance: Krause once told me players should be measured only to the top of the shoulder; he believed the neck and the head were not functional inches and were thereby irrelevant -- hence his affection for Elton Brand, a man unencumbered by a superfluous neck and Krause's choice as the No. 1 pick overall in 1999.)

What would have happened had Rodman stayed in San Antonio or been relegated to another basketball outpost? Despite his talent, he was inching closer and closer to becoming a permanent sideshow. It's not inconceivable that without Jackson's calm and Jordan's obsessive competitiveness, Rodman's career could have devolved into a series of signings and releases by teams willing to take a chance but not make a commitment.

The Bulls refocused Rodman, brought him closer to the guy he was early in his career in Detroit, when he famously responded to a question about his background by saying, "I'm nobody from nowhere." Jackson macheted his way through the thicket of Rodman's insecurities. Jordan was strong enough on the court to channel Rodman's energies. He might have been the only one, at that moment in time, strong enough to do this.

The Bulls brought out Rodman's genius and allowed him to hold it up for the world to see. They made him. Somewhere else, maybe anywhere else, might have unmade him.

ONE OF THE last times I interacted with Rodman was during training camp in Deerfield, Illinois, mere days after the trade was completed. He was living in a Residence Inn adjacent to the Bulls' complex, sharing a "loft suite" with teammate Jack Haley. I would like to say Dennis and I were tidying up some of the book's ragged edges -- or fine-tuning, maybe -- but that book was intended to be ragged and loosely tuned, as a reflection of Rodman's uniquely random path to fame.

We were talking in a hallway of the Berto Center training facility when Rodman said he needed to go lift. The day's obligations were over, and the place felt empty except for a few muffled conversations down the hall. I stopped when we got to the weight room -- I'm sure I was already at least 100 yards beyond the boundaries specified by my credential -- but Rodman waved me through with a look that said his imprimatur was an all-access passport.

There was no one else around, so why not? I wasn't there as a journalist, really, and the place seemed empty. Why couldn't I be the preferred non-member for a change? Still, when your professional life is defined in many ways by the places you can and cannot go, an infraction like this one feels egregious.

And weirdly liberating.

The room was L-shaped, as I remember, the flooring bloodred, and my attention was drawn to human movement coming from my left, the long leg of the L: a person on a bench. Great -- I'm busted. A head turned toward me. Our eyes met.



Be cool. Be calm. Me, Dennis, Michael. Nothing big, really. Just us three. Just us three dudes. Just us three dudes hanging out at the gym.

I mumbled something to Dennis about how I should probably be going. Michael's eyes remained fixed on me, and I could feel the heat of a thousand suns bloom in my face. Dennis waved off my common-man concerns -- Michael's cool, the wave suggested -- and asked me to spot him. When Dennis finished his set, I sensed a presence behind me. I turned.



My mind registered his arrival with the brain-stem buzz reserved for the moment high school kids at a kegger see the cops. How did he know? Did my new friend Michael rat me out?

Phil wasn't there to lift. He was there to expel. The look he gave me was mostly pity -- Who do you think you're kidding? -- and maybe a little amusement. I responded with a look I thought he might appreciate, one that said this was all Dennis' idea. I might have even pointed a finger at Dennis, shielded by my body, like a hostage indicating his kidnapper.

"Time to go" was all Phil said, and it was. It definitely was. I said goodbye to Dennis, who was laughing by this point. I had to walk past Phil on my way out, and he stood his ground, looking through me to Dennis with a bemused look on his face. I knew that look, had actually employed it myself, and I knew there was more of that -- more of Dennis' quirkiness and volatility and, yes, charm -- awaiting Phil, and Michael, and the Bulls, and Chicago, and pretty much everyone else in the world. I muttered an ineffective, and probably unnecessary, apology, and as Phil turned toward me I swear I detected something approaching kinship in his eyes.